David Rock studied at Kings College Newcastle, which was then part of the University of Durham. According to him it was a good School of Architecture, not the best, but one of the top five in the UK. He started studying there straight from school in 1947 for a five-year course.
The period he was at University was later called the ‘golden years’ because of the maturity of the student body and the quality of their work. The government had lowered entry standards for ex-servicemen, resulting in many more people going to college than would have done before the war. Despite this lower entry level, Rock claims that it did not affect standards. Out of the forty people in his first year class, only five attended straight from school. Many of his classmates were married. Some were lieutenants and majors who were still in uniform and living in barracks.
During his five years of study Rock became friends with John Musgrove, who later became Professor Musgrove at the University of London. During their fourth and fifth years, thirty-five of the keenest students in the year did a new two year evening course in Town Planning at the same time as they were studying architecture. This was at the new Department of Town and Country Planning, one of the first in the UK. Only four of them passed this, however, due to the demands of studying architecture and planning at the same time. Rock intended to continue with town planning after the architecture degree and take an extra year to get a Diploma whilst taking a position as a part- time lecturer, as others in the years above him had done. He was expecting to stay in Newcastle after his degree and go to work in the summer of 1952, so he went to interviews in the Easter vacation in what he thought was the best London offices to do this summer work.
Jack Bonnington was in the year above Rock at university and was the best student in a particularly strong year group. According to Rock, Jack Bonnington was very much his own man, and was a good architect in a “straightforward sort of way”. After he had been in the army doing his National Service, Bonnington came back and got in touch with Rock in 1955. Rock had finished his National Service earlier and returned to work in the Spence office. Rock managed to get him an interview with Andrew Renton, Spence’s partner in London, as he thought that he would be a talented architect to have in the office. Renton, however, turned him down claiming that there was not enough work. But Rock persuaded Renton to take him on. “I always look back and wonder whether, you know, I gave Spence a built-in problem by doing that.” Jack Bonnington was single minded and very good at both working drawings and design, a rare quality. He was one of the few people in Spence’s London office who, like Rock, was invited to Canonbury in 1956 to work with Spence.
Once Rock had left Spence’s in 1959 he planned to set up a practice, the plan being for Bonnington to join him later. Bonnington did not, however, want Spence to know that he was intending to leave. For a year Rock worked hard on the practice, dividing up, at the beginning of each commission, what they both had to do. Rock claims, however, that Bonnington only ever did the bare minimum work that he had agreed at the beginning, leading to work piling up and becoming difficult to manage. They had an interesting situation where the part-time salary and fees which Rock had earned went into the kitty, with Bonnington’s salary and they split the total between them. They were fortunate that they earned fairly equal amounts. When Grenfell Baines opened his office in London, he asked Rock to run it, however, Rock decided he couldn’t work with Bonnington any more so took his work into the Baines office. This annoyed Bonnington as he thought that he should be able to move to that office too.
In spring 1952 Rock planned to look for a summer job at one of a number of top architectural firms, including Spence’s. At that time, London was really the only place in the country where architecture was centred, with all the top firms based down there. “Magazines all spoke of London firms.” He was offered jobs at several, but really wanted to work at Spence’s, but hadn’t heard from that office after his interview there.
In June 1952 Basil Spence was an external examiner at Durham. Rock’s interview was rather late on in the few days that Basil was there and Rock had been up for three nights finishing his final scheme – his thesis. Rock took charge of the interview, being particularly vocal with his stammer which had bedevilled his whole five years there, completely gone. At 2am the night before the interview he started working fast on the perspective of his thesis, a pier on the Isle of Man. Rock got the impression that the larger the scheme you worked on the more likely you were to get through! which turned out to be largely true. His project included a number of features, including an underwater aquarium, restaurant, theatre and dance hall. He treated the drawings in an almost graphic way, using influences from the Festival Hall and the Festival of Britain in his design.
Rock sometimes used candle grease to create different effects in his work. In those days they used a lot of different materials to produce different effects in the watercolours. For instance, if you put candle grease on the paper and then wash the paint over the grease it created an interesting scumbled effect. They used many materials to create different results. In terms of producing the effect of wood grain on wood when doing a half inch to one foot coloured detail you would drop in little bits of rubber. When the water dried around the rubber you took the rubber off the paper, leaving the effect of a knot. He remembers, years later, while doing perspectives for Nottingham University, putting tracing paper down on the wooden floors of Canonbury and putting conté crayon on in order to get different characters of clouds.
What were known as half-inch details (half an inch to one foot) were used at that time to show plans, sections and elevations of typical parts of the building. They were a collection of large graphic elevations, plans, sections and details.
During the last two terms of the final year at university you were expected to design a drawn thesis – a building, plus a written thesis on a subject connected with your drawn thesis. Rock did his thesis building – a pier at Douglas on the Isle of Man and his written thesis of 50,000-60,000 words on Seaside Pleasure in Architecture. It was the longest thesis ever submitted and after his Year they put a limit on theses to be no more than 10,000 words! The thesis took a whole year to collect material and write. In the first term of the final year, from October to December, each of Rock’s year had to design a piano showroom in London’s Cavendish Square, which took up one side of the square. The whole building was full of pianos! And although he did not realise it at the time, his building resembled an asymmetrical Festival Hall. The drawings had to look as close as possible to what the building would turn out to be. “Shadows, texture, shade, everything.” Rock was praised by tutors for thinking about how buildings would weather by even drawing pigeon guano down the side of one of his third year buildings.
David Rock spent a great deal of time outside of his architecture degree working on a vast array of projects connected with university life – drawings for the University’s journal; illustrations for a book by one of the tutors, stage sets for the Rag Week show; cartoons for the college newspaper; posters every week for the Debating Society. In 1951 for his town planning degree Rock worked in a team to develop an expansion plan for a historic village in Northumberland. During his second year summer work, he measured and drew the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey (every student had to produce what was termed a ‘measured drawing’). He focused on this decorative subject while everyone else studied the Queen’s House or other buildings. His drawings were submitted to the RIBA for the Silver Medal for Measured Drawings and received a Commendation, but when the drawing came back a corner was torn off one of the main drawings. He wrote to the Secretary to complain about this and this resulted in him saying if Rock wrote to him again in those terms he would refer him to the RIBA solicitor. He also did measured drawings of the Geometrical Staircase at St. Paul’s between his third and fourth year.
Basil Spence took some time to look through his portfolio during his final year interview. “At the end of that, he actually said to me (a funny story this) what you going to do afterwards? Who you going to work for? And I remember putting my foot up on the chair and saying well I am actually waiting to hear from you. Cause I hadn’t heard from Andrew Renton. Basil was very embarrassed because he was easily embarrassed. The tutors, Head and so on, thought this was very funny. So he said, well you better see me afterwards. So I saw him afterwards and he said would you like a job. And I remember, before Basil had seen me, Professor Edwards, Teddy Edwards, had called me into his office and said that Basil Spence is going to offer you a job and of course you have to take it and I remember saying well no I’m going to have to finish my town planning course, and he was saying you’ve got to take it, you can’t turn it down! Not only was he the big man just having won Coventry, but jobs were rather short at that time. I went down to London, I can’t remember, but I must have had a holiday first ‘cause I had a girlfriend in London and we must have organised one, anyhow, I started with him. I remember him saying how much do you want and I didn’t have any idea how much people had, and I said well I dunno how much, and I remember him saying well 7 pounds 10 shillings a week, ‘cause everything was mentioned in weeks then and I said alright. And it was interesting going ahead a bit, after I had been in Queen Anne Street, which was the only office then in London, for two months I realised that I was underpaid comparing it with other people. People didn’t talk about salaries, but I found out what people were getting, so I went to Andrew Renton and said I think I ought to have a rise, so he put me up to ten pounds, which it probably was what I should have been having all the time. Just another sign of Basil’s, sort of in a sense, Scottish meanness, not meanness, but you know, care, whatever you like to say.”
In all five years of his university career, David Rock had never been in or worked in an office. Every year Rock had got a prize from the college, for design, colour studies or measured drawings. And he had concentrated on working on measured drawings during his summer holidays, and had even won a prize from the Northern Architectural Association for this in Second Year. As a result of this lack of experience, he went to Spence’s office scared stiff. He was pleasantly surprised that he was well able to cope, however, in a small office of only eleven people. There were people such as Andrew Renton in charge of the office, but Basil Spence often came in to the studio as he had his flat on the top two floors of the building.
James Ellis was a tall character who wore a bowler hat and carried an umbrella. He had been the job architect on the Festival of Britain. He was stiff but had a great sense of humour and had great stories about things that went wrong on projects there. In the Sea and Ships Pavilion “one of the great buildings, part of it was an enclosed hall with RSJs as we called them then cut diagonally through the web so that you actually got a T shape. They were narrow at one end and big at the other in order to give a canted shape, very ‘50s.” Basil Spence and James Ellis were going around the site with the engineer from Freeman Fox. Ellis said to him that he thought it was interesting how the RSJ he actually showed in his drawings was the right size, as he didn’t do any calculations, expecting that the engineer would do that for him, but the engineer said “I thought you had done the calculations on that!” Another story that James Ellis told Rock is of one contractor who counted the treads on a plan of a staircase rather than the risers. This resulted in there being one step too many on a premade steel staircase. As the stairs had arrived late on site all they could do was cut a hole in concrete at the base and bury the bottom tread in the concrete.
If anybody, Clifford Wearden was the senior assistant in a relaxed office. He was a lovely man, who was particularly organised and gave Rock a lot of help.
“Tony Jackson and Seppi Stockli were upstairs, the only two I think working on Coventry Cathedral, and I think that Tony and Seppi haven’t got anything like, or had anything like the credit that they should have had. I mean Basil was very much in charge of the job and his drawings were marvellous, as you’ve seen from the competition drawings which he did. But Tony and Seppi were very much treated as partners by Basil, and did an awful, awful lot of the work and the thinking and arguing went on for weeks about you know, whether the timber inside roof for instance . . . should be on columns or hung from the structural roof, and all the things about form.” Tony Jackson worked through almost every year of the long Coventry Cathedral project, while Seppi Stockli set up almost all of the highly detailed perspectives. Every line of these was set up by Stockli, then Basil would transform them into art.
“In those days setting up perspectives was a long and arduous thing with height lines and all that sort of thing, and he would often do several, where they thought the view was going to be ok and didn’t turn out to be. So he would go a long way down the road and then calmly start again. Terribly Swiss! . . . In a way they were actually spending much too much time talking. And I remember when I came back from the army, a German came in, whose name I have forgotten, for about 9 months or a year, and he just got hold of the job and did all the basic key drawings, bashing away and just making decisions, because they had all been worrying about aesthetics and all sorts of details, but the key drawings which you need for the contractor, all the details too, had not been done. He just got hold of the scheme and bashed these out.”
The office was hiring a lot of new people during the Coventry project. One of these new employees was Jack Bonnington, who did the design and working details for both chapels. There was also another person, Alan Avery, who did all the stonework drawings, as every stone had to be done full size. “You know that the cathedral plan was on a slight curve inwards, so all the dimensions for each stone were on x and y dimensions.” Due to inexperience, a price hadn’t been worked out with the stonemasons for these detail drawings, and the extent of work that the architects were going to do and what the stonemasons were going to do, was not made clear. So the architects had to do all this extra work. As a result it took 18 months for Alan to draw every stone, or at least the dimensions of every stone, not the stonemasonry firm, which was usual. Then later, when big savings had to be made to reduce the cost of the cathedral, the decision was made to change the stonework on the inside of the cathedral to plaster, so half of Alan’s drawings weren’t used!
When he started work for Spence in 1952, Rock was given a rough conté crayon plan as the basis for a school for 2,000 girls at Sydenham, the second comprehensive school commissioned by the LCC. Back then the architect actually got a brief that listed all the areas of the rooms and exactly what the client wanted, unlike today where you go back and forth to find out what they want. Andrew Renton had done this charcoal basic drawing of where gyms, classroom block, halls and administration block would be. He had then handed the brief out to five people in the office so that half of the office was working on it. The problem was that everyone was working on different grids (“everyone worked on grids then”) and with different methods of construction. Six weeks before the presentation to the LCC nobody had actually created an overall design for the building or had done any elevations.
As a result, David Rock was then given the job of ‘doing’ the elevations. He realised that the plans from five separate people were not working together, so changed the plans, got them all on the same scale and grid and created plans and elevations, including the butterfly roof. “And so within about three months I found myself in charge of five people in the office, and the beginning of my management career basically, which dogged me for the rest of my life.” Rock spent a long time on this building, which he judged to be “not a bad building”. (In fact, last year it was being considered for listing). Andrew Renton had decided that the main building would be a slab block, but Rock believed that Renton’s layout did not work very well in terms of circulation, so he dug into the sloping site, taking out a lot of earth to facilitate movement between one side of the site and the other. Basil Spence and Andrew Renton went to the meeting and came back overjoyed with the LCC’s favourable response as it was a big job for the firm, bringing in badly-needed money. Rock remembers Basil being very complimentary about the project drawings. In the few days before the meeting Rock did a perspective each day, primarily large watercolour drawings. The only alteration required after the meeting was to reduce circulation in the classroom block.
In January 1953 Rock worked on a two day project on Rossie Priory. Spence came down to the office and said he met someone who wanted a ‘sort of Regency’ porch. Rock worked on this and gave a perspective to Spence. After the client accepted this, Rock was asked to do details for the builder. He got out his Mckay books of traditional details to do the details. McKay was the author of famous books of working drawings known as the ‘Bibles of Traditional Construction’ which include practical details of roofs, walls, foundations, etc. Six months later, Rock received a phone call from the builder who asked him if he did the drawings for the porch. The builder asked Rock if the architrave on the front door of the porch went right down to the side or did it stop against the mullion! Not something you would remember. The project had come straight to Basil, rather than to the Scottish office, so he just handed it over to Rock. “I think I was very much considered, you know, a ‘designer’, not that the others weren’t, but I was just a young designer . . . I was a bright boy, I think, for a while.”
Rock’s next job was the Cappers’ Room at Coventry Cathedral. He went up there and measured up the Cappers’ Room in the old cathedral which was on the first floor above a porch. The room had no roof and only part of a gothic window remained. There was a very thick wall along part of the room. An external staircase to the Room would have looked out of place, Rock decided. Rock decided to dig a staircase out of this thick wall straight up into the room instead. He also designed decorated bosses which were 18 inches across, based on the Cappers’ history. These were rejected, however, as the Cathedral couldn’t afford them. After Rock came back from the army, Roger Button the job architect who was site architect for Coventry for years, said to him that he had taken the job over and that all they had done since he left was to put dimensions on Rock’s drawings and use them as working drawings. As it turned out, it was discovered on site that the sectional drawings had one less ceiling beam than in plan, which was something Rock normally considered would be sorted out in the final constructional drawings, which hadn’t been done.
Between January and May 1953 the firm had to design an exhibition stand for ICI at the Building Trades Exhibition at Olympia. This was a very big exhibition, with lots of architects doing stands. Spence always did the ICI work, including for events in Belfast and around Scotland. What most people do not know is that Basil Spence was well known and got his OBE before Coventry as an exhibition architect. “As Reyner Banham said, ‘Coventry was really just a big exhibition stand.’ And there’s a lot of truth in that, in a way, with all the art around and things to look at as you go around, and why I think it’s so successful.” Spence did his overall sketch and handed it on to Rock to detail and get onto site. It was the first building that Rock had got onto site. The Stand had a magnificent mural by Laurence Scarfe and a series of fibrous plaster fins similar to ones being designed for the Cathedral. The firm used the exhibition stand to try out the size as, unknown to the ICI, they were experimental for one of the chapels at Coventry Cathedral.
Spence had a lot of confidence in his staff and Rock was often surprised at how much freedom he had. One example of this is when Basil asked Rock to design a huge 15 foot high plaster mural for a wall and simply told him to ‘do a Ben Nicholson on it’. Rock went and bought a little book on him, despite knowing about him already, and did a design of slightly incised and raised rectangles and circles. The first time Spence saw it was the day before the exhibition opened he said “David, David, that’s too much like Ben Nicholson, no no, I’m really embarrassed, we will have to change it”, so they put colours on this ‘Ben Nicholson’ replica which is something that Ben Nicholson would never have done, he would have had it all white.
At the exhibition Rock was required to design an internal curved screen which needed a detail to get around the curve. He created a series of wooden fins with glass between. Spence used to come round the office and put tracing paper over his employees drawing to sketch on. Rock remembers him doing a tiny little drawing of a piece of timber, one wedged into the other to make the curve (rather than his huge fins) to create a delicate design with small shadows. This was a detail which Rock copied in the first shop he designed after he left Spence’s. “He had a very good idea of scale, and how even small cast shadows, which of course doing measured drawings is [about], how you learn this.
Practising artist Laurence Scarfe was employed by Spence on the exhibition project. He only had a certain amount of money available from the project’s budget, so he got students to put in bands of colours then he came along and did patches of detail on them. This is a very good example of how to use your budget and still cover a large area.
Rock learned about the value of working with flash joints during the project at the ICI exhibition. One day he was called up by the contractors when they were erecting the sections which had been made off site. An issue with the structure had arisen as Rock had not thought to look upwards when designing the stand. Above the site there was a large metal capital sticking out into the wall of the stand. The contractors decided the best way to deal with this problem was to put a chain around the building, pull it in so that the building went a slight angle inwards and upwards, and in doing so they were able to miss the capital, a flash gap that Rock had designed between elements allowed this to happen. This is something which Rock claims is a good technique for exhibition stands, as the gap can be made smaller or bigger where needed.
The next job that Rock worked on was a very quick one just before he left to finish his Soane Medallion drawings – he had got into the last six of this prestigious competition – and then into the Army for his National Service. He had gone back up to Sunderland to be looked after by his mother while he completed the drawings. Spence asked him to work on a scheme for housing at Newhaven in Scotland only four or five days before he left. He said that the Edinburgh office had not turned out very good designs, so asked Rock to redesign the housing and do some perspectives for an exhibition to be held ten days later. Rock simply moved some windows around, simplified things generally and did five perspectives. Rock repeated this improvement of Edinburgh office schemes several times in later years.
In 1953 just before this, Rock was also asked to do drawings of Bishop Gorton’s tomb in Coventry Cathedral to show where it was and what it would have looked like.